Wal-Mart is the best! No, wait, it's the worst!

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Pick A or B:

A) Wal-Mart has the most believable advertising of any company in America, scores first in retail customer service and ranks as the second-most trustworthy corporation in the nation.

B) Wal-Mart has the least believable advertising of any company in America, scores worst in customer service and ranks as the second-least-trustworthy company in America-right behind Enron.

The correct answer is C: all of the above, according to the American Demographics Perception Study, an online survey of 1,133 adults fielded for Ad Age by Aegis Group's Synovate.

What gives? Consumers are deeply divided over the behemoth from Bentonville, sending Wal-Mart to the top of the charts as both the best and the worst.

When consumers were asked to name the "most trustworthy company in America," Wal-Mart tied for second (with General Electric Co.), behind Ford Motor Co. But more people picked Wal-Mart in a separate question as the "least- trustworthy" company, putting it second on the rogue's list.

It's not unusual for giant companies to have lots of fans and foes. Ford and General Motors Corp., for example, both ranked in the top five for most and least trustworthy companies.

But Wal-Mart is the most extreme example. It's a lightning rod, sparking widely divergent views within the same age, income, education and regional demographic groups.

Naysayers abound even in groups where Wal-Mart is a dominant retailer. Consumers with a high-school diploma, for example, ranked Wal-Mart tops in trust, believable ads and service. Yet in separate questions to pick the worst offenders in those attributes, Wal-Mart had among the worst scores for high-school graduates.

Even on its home turf in the South, Wal-Mart ranked just behind its infamous southern neighbor, Enron, among least-trustworthy corporations. Wal-Mart knows how to run an efficient store, but the survey shows it has yet to establish trust and credibility with many consumers. It's a Wal-Mart Nation divided.

Wal-Mart leads the way in truth in advertising-and fiction. It far and away scored tops among adults in questions both on what company had the "most believable" advertising and what company's ad pitch was "most at odds with its image, reputation or product."

Ford scored second in "most believable" (and third, alas, in ads "most at odds" with reputation or product). The cola wars ended in a tie, with Coca-Cola and Pepsi placing third among believable advertisers for all adults.

Dell did well in advertising-credibility scores, particularly among educated and affluent consumers, and Geico won No. 1 for believability among adults with graduate degrees. Walt Disney Co. ranked second in ad credibility among adults age 18-24; that same group gave the company high marks for "most trustworthy," an impressive showing.

In the tally of companies for ads "most at odds" with image, reputation or product, two burger sellers-McDonald's and Carl's Jr.-were among the five with the biggest disconnect among all adults. For McDonald's, many consumers aren't buyin' it. How did Carl's Jr., a West Coast burger chain, make the list? Answer: Paris Hilton. Carl's Jr. broke its sensual ad with Ms. Hilton and brought on a media frenzy days before Synovate put this survey in the field.


A group of blue-chip names-including Ford, GE and Wal-Mart-scored tops across demographics for a question on the "most trustworthy" company. Microsoft Corp. had a strong showing, ranking in the top five among all adults and doing well among three desirable demos-young, affluent, most educated.

The answers to a question about the "least trustworthy" company included the scoundrels (Enron, WorldCom), the unloved (insurance companies, Big Oil) and blue-chip names with mixed reputations (Ford, General Motors, Wal-Mart).

CNN ranked No. 1 in the American Demographics Perception Study for "most trustworthy and objective" news medium across nearly every age, income, education and regional demographic. The exceptions? Older consumers (55-64, 65+) and Southerners, who ranked Fox News ahead of CNN.

Time was the only news publication to make the top-five list for trust and objectivity among all adults, though The New York Times did well with the oldest and most-educated consumers.

One publication walked away with the prize as the "most trustworthy and objective" media outlet for information on consumer products: Consumer Reports, cited by 43% of adults in the survey. The ad-free magazine did well across demographics and scored highest with the most educated and affluent. Forget about truth in advertising. What consumers really like is truth-without advertising.

More online

Go to AdAge.com QwikFIND aaq37m to download detailed data from the American Demographics Perception Study

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